Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Artisanal Craft Dice Part 4: The Dice, They Are A-Changin'

A lot of things happened in the twenty years since I was role-playing with any grace or consistency. It was all part of that larger emergent Geek Culture we heard so much about. The World of Darkness games went away. We got three Lord of the Rings movies. Print-on-Demand and PDF markets suddenly became a thing.  The Big Bang Theory happened. Marvel movies suddenly became a thing. DC movies stopped being a thing. The Board Game market exploded. The OSR movement happened. Every neckbeard in an ill-fitting game convention T-shirt started a blog. The height-weight proportionate ones started a YouTube channel. Dungeons & Dragons turned 40. Celebrities, and also Vin Diesel, came out (sorta) as lifelong gamers. 

Seemingly overnight, everyone was gaming again, this time propped up by these tastemakers and outliers from the Maker and DIY culture. 

That's Marvel's Netflix's Dardevil's
Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), DMing
a Dungeons & Dragons game. My work
here is done. 
Manufacturing processes got better, faster and cheaper. Injection molding got a lot better, as did the plastics. It became exponentially easier to deal with companies in China, though not any exponentially less frustrating. Pieces and parts and bits and bobs, what used to be expensive and difficult to make, were now being made overseas for a fraction of the cost (and not to put it too indelicately, many tiny hands). The modern-Day gaming table looks very different these days. There are DM screens designed to hold iPads and Tablets, for crying out loud.

But at the center of it all, we still have dice. We need dice. And now that the people who are playing these games have real jobs and real money, and now that the DIY and Maker movements are fully ensconced in gaming culture, why not chisel dice out of stones? Why not machine dice out of metal? Why not carve dice out of wood? Why not mold and etch weird-ass dice in plastic and resin and Kickstart that sumbitch and make eleventy-skillion dollars? Or, better yet, why not order dice from China, give them a clever name, and Kickstart that, and use the funds to just buy stock based on pre-orders and package them up in the states?

Welcome to the New World Order. Artisanal Craft Dice look fanTAStic on the table. They have a presence, as only a chunk of granite or as a block of machined aluminum can have. They cost fifty bucks or more for a set of those bastards. But they look great, don’t they? You can pick ‘em up and roll ‘em and they will be, well, somewhat helpful, provided they don’t dent your table finish or give you tennis elbow. Or that you can see the numbers you rolled. Or that they ever stop rolling. But hey, none of that matters, right? You’re the dwarf. So, since dwarves like metal, here are dice made of cold iron! See, because it’s a theme, see?

GameScience Dice: when you absolutely positively have
to field the ugliest damn dice you can find.
I remember when Lou Zocchi was the only Artisanal Craft Dice guy knocking around. Zocchi is the guy behind GameScience, a company that put the old in Old School. They sold, back in the day, these “Precision Gem” dice that were quite sexy, made of sharp edges, and they claimed were more accurate since they were machine calibrated using math and stuff. They were expensive back then, and they haven’t gotten any less expensive in the intervening years. And you had to be careful about engaging with Zocchi at a game convention, or you’d learn more than you ever wanted to about the geometry and manufacturing process that corrupts all dice except his. Thankfully someone recorded his spiel and put it up on YouTube so now you can hear it when you’re good and ready and have thirty minutes to invest. Zocchi is also quite the ventriloquist, magician, and balloon artist, I shit you not. This hobby is fucking weird, y'all.

These were our dice: baby blue, with
their own crayon. Just try bringing
that to the party and see if you don't
get pantsed. And yet, we were so
happy to have these. You can't
even imagine.
We were just happy to have dice at all in the 1980s. These fancy plastics were around back then—swirled, opalescent, marbled, sparkles—it was all just industrial plastic and resin with other stuff dumped into it. Big whoop. By far, the most popular dice back then were the gem dice, because that looked like treasure from the game we were actually playing. As much as I love the Euro-dice, my heart will always belong to my Armory gem dice in translucent resin. And full disclosure: they were hard on the furniture. Those super sharp corners dug right into the coffee table and the dining room table and put little dints and dings in the finish that drove our parents insane.

As adults, we have dice towers and dice trays and better dice with rounded edges and better tables with glass tops or whatever, and we forget about why we needed all of that shit in the first place, living in our parents’ house and destroying their furniture. We all have better jobs than lawnmowing and babysitting, so for some reason, that was a green light for the stone cutters and iron mongers and resin casters of the crafting/gaming Venn diagram to commission these new and improved instruments of scrying and destruction. It’s the weirdest status symbol I’ve ever seen in a hobby built on its own innate weirdness.

To be completely honest, this is nothing new. We always had this stuff, even back in the first edition epoch of yore. If you go back and look at the ads in old Dragon magazines from the early 1980s, right when D&D was first skyrocketing in sales, you’ll find ads for metal dice, stone dice, solid wood dice towers, and all of the other adornments that routinely clutter the game table these days, including a thing called "The Dragonbone"; an electronic dice roller (eye roller, is more like it. Where's the fun in that?) The thing was, if you weren’t reading Dragon magazine, or attending GenCon or Origins, or you didn’t happen to live in a town with one of these micropublishers, then you didn’t know anything about any of that stuff. It was the very definition of a cottage industry.

Now we’ve got the Internet, and Blogs, and Kickstarter, and Amazon, and it has leveled the playing field for a lot of publishers, producers, makers, and hobbyists. But when it’s all said and done, all you need—all you’ve ever needed to play these games—is a pencil, some paper, and a set of dice. And they don’t have to be artisanal craft dice, either.

The game is in your head, not on the table.

Next: Grading Dice

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